Pirate State by Peter Eichstaedt by Peter Eichstaedt - Read Online

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Summary

Providing a timely and never-before-seen perspective on the ever-increasing menace of Somali pirates, this account shows how the cargo ship and oil tanker hijackings and ransoms in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean have turned one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes into one of the most dangerous. By way of one-on-one interviews with pirates, their associates, their victims, and those who police them, the book reveals piracy’s origins, tactics, and increasing links to terrorists in Somalia, East Africa, and the Middle East, including Yemen, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. These sources point to a scenario in which Somali pirates might not just be out for themselves; they may be a part of a larger, more sinister infrastructure of global financiers and Islamic extremists that—if not dealt with soon—could greatly destabilize the region and perhaps threaten United States national security.
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Eichstaedt, Peter H., 1947–

Pirate state : inside Somalia’s terrorism at sea / Peter Eichstaedt.

p. cm.

Includes bibliographical references and index.

ISBN 978-1-56976-311-7 (hbk.)

1. Maritime terrorism—Somalia. 2. Piracy—Somalia. 3. Hijacking of ships—Somalia. I. Title.

HV6433.786.S58E43 2010

364.16'4—dc22

2010015506

Interior design: Jonathan Hahn

Map design: Chris Erichsen

All photos courtesy of the author

© 2010 by Peter Eichstaedt

All rights reserved

Published by Lawrence Hill Books

An imprint of Chicago Review Press, Incorporated

814 North Franklin Street

Chicago, Illinois 60610

ISBN: 978-1-56976-311-7

Printed in the United States of America

5 4 3 2 1

Contents

Map

Prologue: The Pirates’ Call

1 Attack on the Alabama

2 Pirates and Prisons

3 Cauldron of Chaos

4 Method to the Madness

5 Inside a Hijacking

6 Nightmare on the Delta

7 Ten Months in Hell

8 Malaise in Mombasa

9 Desperation at Dadaab

10 Haven for Terror

11 Fighting Back

12 Sailors Take Warning

Epilogue: A Modest Proposal

Acknowledgments

Notes

Index

PROLOGUE

The Pirates’ Call

Silence grips the gritty streets of Khartoum in early December 2008, as if the city has fallen into a deep sleep. It is Eid al-Adha, the Festival of Sacrifice celebrating Abraham’s willingness to slay his son Isaac at God’s bidding. Even the trinket peddler who camps in the hotel lobby has taken the day off. I retreat to my room and read the magazine on my hotel room desk, its cover curiously depicting a U.S. naval ship, a heavily armed man on the deck of a freighter, and an army tank. The story rails about the notorious Ukrainian ship, MV Faina, hijacked months earlier by Somali pirates. The armed man is a pirate draped in chains of bullets and brandishing a high-caliber machine gun.

I am not in Sudan’s capital because of the Somali pirates. Rather, I am conducting a workshop for journalists from Darfur about the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands, which has indicted two ranking Sudanese accused of orchestrating the death and destruction in Darfur.

Yet the Somali pirates are with me in Khartoum, beckoning and taunting, a menace to the glut of oceangoing cargo carriers and pleasure cruisers that sail the East African waters between the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. The pirates attack anything of value that floats: oil tankers, freighters, cruise ships, and private yachts, collecting handsome ransoms for their work. That dozens of desperate Somali fishermen harass global shipping magnates, holding them, their crews, and world trade hostage is as amusing as it is outrageous. And it all takes place under the watchful eyes of the world’s largest and most powerful navies, including those of the United States, Russia, China, Japan, and half a dozen European countries.

The hijacking of the MV Faina was more than a random splash of publicity for the Somali pirates, and the ripples were felt throughout the region. The MV Faina set sail on the Black Sea in late August 2008, bound for the Kenyan port of Mombasa, carrying thirty-three T-72 Soviet-designed tanks, 150 grenade launchers, six antiaircraft guns, and pallets of ammunition. On September 25, gun-toting Somalis cranked up their slender skiffs, hooked their ladders to the sides of the ship, and climbed aboard. The Faina was theirs. How could the Somali pirates get so lucky? This had to be part of something larger.

Soon after the ship was seized, word leaked that the weaponry was headed for South Sudan. The article inside the magazine, a piece of Sudanese propaganda, revealed that the Sudan government was seething. It accused South Sudan of trashing the shaky peace deal the two parties signed in 2005. Sudan was right to be worried. I had arrived in Khartoum from South Sudan just days earlier, where I had seen about a dozen similar tanks at a military post in Wau, just 125 miles from the South’s border with Sudan. It was clear that South Sudan was arming, fully expecting to fight Sudan as it did from 1983 to 2005 in a bloody and woefully underreported war that claimed some two million lives and displaced four million others.

The war this time would have new stakes. It would be over not only South Sudan’s independence, to be voted on in 2011, but its untapped oil. War in South Sudan is a prospect no one wants to admit. But the South Sudanese know who they face in the people and the party behind Sudan’s president, Omar al-Bashir, even if the world has failed to recognize the realities of Darfur. As the fate of the weapons ship hung in the balance, it was painfully obvious that Somali pirates had become players in a larger and more dangerous global game. The pirates have become a headache not only for East Africa but for the world.

America has been keeping tabs on Somalia. The psychic wound America suffered in the Battle of Mogadishu, fought in October 1993 and highlighted in the book Black Hawk Down and film of the same name, had scabbed over but never fully healed. That two-day battle claimed the lives of eighteen U.S. soldiers and wounded seventy-three others. It also killed an estimated one thousand Somali militia fighters. In the wake of that battle, Somalia descended into chaos as competing militias and militant Muslims grappled for control. In northern Somalia, the former British colony of Somaliland broke away and declared itself a republic that is still unrecognized by the world today. Encompassing the Horn of Africa was the politically autonomous heartland of piracy, Puntland, so-named as the Biblical source of frankincense and myrrh, once known as punt. For nearly twenty years, southern Somalia had smoldered and frequently burned out of control.

When the MV Faina was taken, U.S. attention was momentarily drawn to the region. The United States has quietly been supporting South Sudan, a move that can help contain and control recalcitrant Sudan. But with the MV Faina anchored off the Somali pirate enclave of Hobyo along with its array of weaponry, a crisis erupted. A U.S. warship was dispatched to prevent the weapons from falling into the hands of Islamist militants on shore in Somalia or, worse yet, reaching Khartoum. The warship positioned itself between the MV Faina and the Somali shoreline, ensuring that the tanks and everything else stayed on the ship. While the blockade was largely successful, some small weapons were reportedly smuggled away as the pirates routinely moved from shore to ship with supplies.

The hijacking of the MV Faina ended in early February 2009 when a ransom pegged at $3.2 million clunked on to the Faina’s deck. A week later, the MV Faina chugged into Mombasa, its twenty-member crew exhausted, disgusted, and deeply homesick. After nearly five months of captivity, the crew stumbled down the gangplank, bedraggled and clad in grimy clothes. The only casualty of the incident was the Ukrainian captain, who died of an apparent heart attack from the shock of having pirates storm aboard. His body was kept in the ship’s freezer. The sailors described how they were locked in a stuffy room and allowed out once or twice a week, leaving little chance for escape. They were watched by jumpy Somali gunmen habitually chewing khat, the green leaves of a mildly narcotic plant that grows all over East Africa. The sailors were deprived of water and fed just enough spaghetti to keep them alive. The crew believed it would be executed once, when it was marched on deck and lined up along the rails. Only later did the crew learn that the pirates were complying with a request from the U.S. Navy to show that all were still alive.

Then, on April 8, 2009, the United States was hit broadside by Somali pirates who attempted to capture the U.S.-flagged ship the Maersk Alabama. The hijacking failed when the crew overpowered one of the pirates and arranged a deal in which the pirates fled in the cargo ship’s lifeboat with the captain held hostage. When the drama ended with the killing of three pirates by military snipers, the Somali pirates were no longer just a menace to pleasure cruises and cargo carriers on distant waters. They had thrust themselves into the floodlights of the world stage.

Were these pirates truly a legion of desperate fisherman bloodying the noses of global shipping companies on a daily basis? Or was this the work of organized crime syndicates? Was piracy connected to the madness that gripped Somalia? In late 2009, I crisscrossed much of East Africa to find the answers to these questions. I met with pirates in Somaliland prisons. I attended pirate trials in Mombasa and visited sprawling Somali refugee camps. I held clandestine meetings with Somali pirates and their bankers. In the dark corners of Nairobi I interviewed a former fighter with the brutal Islamist al-Shabaab militia.

While the plague of piracy demands immediate and aggressive action, it is a symptom of a much deeper problem: Somalia itself. The potential of Somalia metastasizing into something worse than it already has become is more than worrisome. In late September 2009 I met in a quiet Nairobi coffee shop with Bruno Schiemsky. As the former head of the United Nations panel of experts monitoring the UN’s weapons embargo on Somalia, he was intimately aware of the situation in Somalia on land and at sea. As we sipped coffee, Schiemsky described the links between the pirates and elements of the extremist al-Shabaab militia that controls southern Somalia. The tentacles of such terrorist groups extend across the Gulf of Aden into Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and the freewheeling port of Dubai, ultimately reaching Pakistan and Afghanistan. In Africa, those tentacles stretch throughout Somalia and across the porous borders of Ethiopia and Eritrea, and to Sudan, Egypt, and Libya. The pirates, he suggested, are at the edges of an underground network determined to make Somalia not only a haven for madness but a platform for a global jihad. Turning a blind eye to piracy and Somalia is to invite disasters of horrific proportions.

The West is about to commit the same egregious mistake in Somalia that it did in Afghanistan. After the Soviet Union was defeated in Afghanistan in 1989, when the so-called threat of creeping communism was removed, the United States set Afghanistan adrift, letting it descend into a chaotic and bloody civil war that gave rise to the Taliban. Ultimately, the Taliban gave shelter to Osama bin Laden, who hatched the plot that resulted in the September 11 attacks. Since then, the United States and its allies have been fighting wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq in an increasingly desperate attempt to contain extremism and terror.

Somalia duplicates Afghanistan. The country has been wracked with war since 1991 due in part to the United States’ hands-off policy that followed the Black Hawk Down debacle and made the country ripe for an extremist takeover by militant Islamists. Doing nothing to bring stability and sanity to Somalia is inviting another 9/11, only the next one could be much worse. Doing nothing will also allow Somali piracy to flourish and grow, and as of this writing, it was already spreading far into the Indian Ocean. Modern-day piracy does not resemble the depictions that come out of Hollywood studios. These pirates are desperate and dangerous men who will do just about anything for money. They are increasingly linked with global financiers and religious fanatics prepared to kill themselves and countless others on the promise of paradise in the afterlife. These links to a disturbing and growing network may ultimately affect people around the world in ways they can’t imagine.

1

Attack on the Alabama

Two men stand on the bridge of the U.S.-flagged ship Maersk Alabama as it churns through the Indian Ocean some three hundred miles off the coast of Somalia. It is Wednesday, April 8, 2009, and in the growing light of dawn their eyes follow a blip on the ship’s radar.[1] They scan the steely gray sea, and in the distance a small boat races toward them, bouncing madly on the waves. Not again, they think. In the past twenty-four hours, the ship has been approached twice, the last time being just hours earlier, when navigator Ken Quinn was on watch. The Maersk Alabama had passed what Quinn suspected was a pirate mother ship, a larger boat from which the pirates launch their armed attacks using skiffs powered by outboard motors. They were telling us on the radio to pull over, Quinn said later. They kept saying ‘Stop ship, stop ship, Somali pirate,’ but we just kept going.[2]

An earlier attack had come the afternoon before, when pirates bristling with weapons had trailed the ship. Captain Richard Phillips had ordered evasive measures and speeding up and left the pirates in their wake. The little boats couldn’t catch up to us, Quinn said.[3] Initially, the two men on the bridge, First Mate Shane Murphy and Captain Phillips, were not alarmed at this third attack. I see pirates attack ships all the time, Murphy explained.[4] But as the speeding craft closed in, each man drew a deep breath and squinted as the morning sun glinted off the rippling sea. The boat was coming faster than anything they’d see before, splashing through the waves. This one didn’t feel right, Murphy said later, recalling his sense of helplessness.[5] Their heavy cargo—4,100 metric tons of corn and soybeans, along with 990 metric tons of vegetable oil—had lowered the deck to less than twenty feet off the surface. Phillips and Murphy realized that if the pirates came alongside, they would have little trouble climbing aboard. Ironically, the Maersk Alabama was headed for Mombasa, Kenya, with food aid for millions of malnourished Africans who would suffer due to Somali pirates bent on hijacking it and holding it for months, if necessary.

When Phillips sounded the alarm, Quinn jolted awake, having left his watch shift just hours earlier for some badly needed sleep. He sensed trouble. I was sleeping, he recalled. I got off watch at four in the morning and I went to bed. With the alarm blaring, Quinn pulled on his clothes, grabbed his radio, and ran to the ship’s safe room, where he made a head count. The first pirate boarded quickly, Quinn said, using a ladder that was easily hooked onto the side of the ship. A wiry young man brandishing an AK-47 that he fired repeatedly, he scampered up several flights of stairs to the bridge and confronted the captain.[6] Fourteen of the nineteen crew members were already in the ship’s safe room. Phillips and two others remained on the bridge.[7] Murphy and Chief Engineer Mike Perry were already gone. Murphy had ducked into the interior corridors, where he secured as many of the ship’s locks and doors as he could. He stopped short and swallowed hard when Phillips yelled over the ship’s radio and intercom, Shots fired! Shots fired! When Murphy and the crew heard this, they knew they faced their worst nightmare. They were coming aboard, Murphy told himself. It’s going to be a fight. But he refused to surrender. I wasn’t willing to give up the ship to these guys yet.[8]

On the bridge with Phillips were Third Mate Colin Wright and crewman Zahid ATM Reza, who prepared to confront the pirates. The lead pirate, later identified as eighteen-year-old Abdiwali Abdiqadir Musi, and his accomplices leveled their guns at Phillips, Reza, and Wright. You just hope you don’t get killed, Wright said later of the ordeal.[9] The pirates ordered Phillips to stop the ship and gather the crew. Murphy and the crew could monitor the conversation over the ship’s radios. Phillips spoke in a calm, cooperative voice, but the tension was undeniable. You could tell he had a gun pointed at his face, Murphy said later.[10]

After Musi and the attackers quizzed Phillips about the ship and crew, they began to cheer. Learning that the ship and crew were American, they believed they’d hit the jackpot. Musi and his accomplices reassured the three hostages that if all went well, they would survive unharmed. Don’t worry. We just want money, Musi said.[11]

The pirates then ordered Phillips to assemble the crew. Unknown to the pirates, however, the crew had a password that Phillips would use when the coast was clear. When he didn’t use it, the crew hunkered down in their stifling confines.[12] Minutes dragged on. When no one showed, the pirates again demanded that Phillips gather the crew. Phillips made another call, but when no one appeared, the pirates angrily threatened to kill their captives. The pirates then sent Wright to find the crew members and bring them to the bridge. Instead, Wright used this opportunity to disappear, and he remained hidden for the rest of the ordeal that day.[13]

Moments after the pirates had boarded, Perry had told the helmsman to try to swamp the pirate boat.[14] It was a maneuver they’d done before and involved fishtailing the behemoth cargo ship from side to side, creating a downdraft of water as the ship slid sideways. The roiling waters sucked the pirate skiff under. The move turned out to be critical. The four Somali pirates were left with no means of escape, should the hijacking fail. With their skiff gone, the control of the Maersk Alabama had already begun to slip away from the pirates.

Suddenly the Maersk Alabama was dead in the water as Perry shut down the ship’s engines, leaving only an emergency generator running that powered a few emergency lights. Determined that the pirates would have nothing at their disposal, Perry stealthily raced about the ship and, reaching the backup generator, turned it off as well. The ship fell silent, its interior passageways pitch black. Perry’s actions were strategic. He knew the pirates probably planned to take the ship to the nearest Somali port while negotiations took place. But out at sea, the pirates were far from help and were vulnerable. Meanwhile, the crew huddled in the suffocating darkness of the safe room with no food or water as the temperature steadily climbed to 125 degrees Fahrenheit.[15]

As Perry and Murphy hustled about the darkened ship, the pirates realized they had to force Phillips to gather the crew to get the ship moving. The pirates renewed their demand that the crew surrender. Knowing this was impossible, and with Wright gone, Reza engaged the pirate Musi in a conversation, explaining that the crew members had instructions to hide and would do so as long as they suspected they were in danger. Reza, a Bangladeshi, used their shared Islamic faith to convince the young pirate leader Musi to cooperate with him. I told him, ‘Trust me. I am Muslim; you are Muslim.’[16] Sensing he might be able get a jump on Musi, Reza agreed to help Musi find the crew but only if Musi left his AK-47 and pistol behind. Musi agreed. It was a fateful decision.

As Musi and Reza plunged into the darkened passageways of the ship, they were unaware that Perry, armed with a thick-bladed pocketknife, had taken up a position near the engine room. Anticipating that sooner or later the pirates would search the ship for the crew, Perry knew they would ultimately pass the engine room. His hunch proved correct when he heard the footsteps of Reza and Musi, lighting their way with a flashlight. Suddenly the light was in Perry’s face. Perry retreated just enough to gain the advantage, then stopped as he rounded a corner. Musi gave chase, and Reza followed. As the light came closer with each of Musi’s steps, Perry waited until the last moment before grabbing Musi and holding his knife at Musi’s throat. [17]

With Reza’s help, Perry wrestled Musi to the ground, and in the process Musi’s hand was sliced badly. I held him. I tied his hands and tied his legs. He was fighting me, Reza said of the struggle. There was a lot of yelling, shouting, and screaming. I was attempting to kill him. He was scared.[18]

The struggle took place just outside the safe room door, Quinn explained later, leaving him and the rest of the crew to listen helplessly at the scuffling just inches away. We could hear a commotion out in the engine room, and that lasted about fifteen minutes. I was right up against the door listening to see what was going on, Quinn said. "Then I heard voices, and I could tell the chief engineer was in there, and I could hear [the hijacker’s] voice. Then [Perry] said, ‘Dinnertime, suppertime, open the door.’ That’s our code word. We opened the door and he said, ‘I’ve got this prisoner, and you guys are going to have to watch him.’ So he pushed him in with us. The guy kind of went crazy at first. They pushed